Aug. 5, 2020 – By SUSAN MINUK
Precisely six years ago, the world witnessed the horrific attempted genocide of the Yazidi people in northern Iraq. It was on Aug. 3, 2014 when ISIL fighters entered the Yazidi city of Sinjar, beginning a killing spree that claimed an estimated 5,000 civilians and the widespread raping of women, including girls as young as nine. Thousands of prisoners were kidnapped and turned into slaves.
In all, ISIL’s murderous actions resulted in approximately 500,000 Yazidi refugees.
In November 2017, some 1,200 Yazidi arrived in Canada as refugees, with about 250 settling in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto. They continue to face multiple barriers to integration, including adult illiteracy and post traumatic stress disorder.
To combat those, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Toronto (JIAS) has launched an online school support program for Yazidi refugee children aimed at boosting basic literacy, love of learning, and self-confidence.
The pilot program is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and runs through Aug. 13.
“The importance of welcoming the stranger has been ingrained 36 times in the Torah,” Elise Herzig, executive director of JIAS Toronto, told the CJR. “It’s the one commandment that’s been repeated more than any other.”
For refugee students, education is a particularly healing and empowering process, Herzig said.
“Many of these individuals are illiterate both numerically and unable to read in their own language. The idea was that these children would be provided additional skills to supplement what they were learning in the school system.”
JIAS serves 14 families in the Yazidi community. There are 48 Yazidi children in the summer school support program.
JIAS supplied families with tablets but faced the challenge of how to run an online learning program for a largely illiterate population – and during a pandemic.
“How do you teach families lacking basic English language and literacy skills to use technology when you can’t sit with them in person?” asked Herzig. “What happens when you need to troubleshoot?”
It was “hours and hours” of work. First, a translator had to find out whether families were able get online. If they could, did they know how to turn on the device?
“We had to think in ways we never imagined,” Herzig went on. “We basically found out that every kid could click on the number 9. We set it up in a way that if they clicked 9, the account that we preset up for them automatically recognized the 9 and put them into the Zoom room.”
Sometimes, kids forget to sign in. JIAS has to call and remind them because they don’t know how to tell time.
The curriculum includes English as a second language, virtual field trips and an arts-based mental health program to help the kids “deal with their past experiences and everyday stress that all kids go through, including COVID,” said Herzig.
JIAS partnered with Project Abraham, a registered charity that supports the resettlement in Canada of victims of genocide, ethnic cleansing and abduction.
One program participant’s mother remarked that her son “now has courage to try to read as he sees his friends are reading in the program.”
What can we learn from the Yazidi?
“They are strong and have incredible resilience,” said Herzig “The way they form community and the way they support each other is quite remarkable.”
Susan Minuk is both humbled and heartened by everyday stories with the power to touch or inspire her readers’ lives.